ALL meeting planners are faced with the challenge of determining whether to rent equipment on site, bring company-owned equipment, or purchase new equipment for a particular meeting. This can be a daunting task because it's technical and time-consuming. However, if you do it well, you'll have the right equipment at your meetings-at a fair price.

The first step is to determine if there's a real need for the equipment. New technologies lead to some wonderful toys that many presenters would love to use; however, your company should have a process that determines whether or not a purchase is justified. For example, when laser pointers first came out, they were expensive (to purchase or rent), and most presenters did not use them very effectively. They were fun, but not a very good use of conference dollars.

Ultimately, your analysis needs to be put in financial terms because it's the bottom line that speaks the loudest. Your accountants will tell you that most audio- visual equipment that costs more than $500 is depreciated over a five-year period. Computer equipment, because the the industry changes so quickly, is depreciated over a three-year period. So for tax purposes, your equipment has been "paid for" at the end of these time periods.

Purchase or Rent? Let's assume the need for certain equipment has been reviewed and approved. How do you decide whether to rent or purchase? There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

If you rent the equipment, you don't have to go through the hassle of packing it up, making sure it gets to your conference site safely and in working condition, paying shipping and customs fees, keeping it safe from damage or theft during the conference, and providing the technical crew to operate the gear.

But while it can be more convenient to rent than to purchase, one of the main drawbacks of renting is the high cost. The daily rate for audiovisual equipment is typically about ten percent of the value of the gear; for example, $5,000 video projector might rent for $500 per day. With a long contract you might get a discount (if you rent for nine days, you might only be charged for five or six days), but that's not guaranteed.

Another disadvantage of renting is that you won't know until the equipment shows up what condition it's in. The shiny black speakers you're expecting may look like they were used at a rock concert and fell off the truck on the way home. We recently rented some equipment that was so dirty when it arrived that the first thing we did was get a vacuum to clean off the dust. Most equipment arrives in good shape, but rough handling leads to frequent repairs and is one of the reasons for steep rental fees. Another reason is that clients naturally want only the latest equipment, which means the rental company must purchase new models on a regular basis.

Your next question might be: "If I've paid enough to have bought it, why didn't I?" Sometimes buying is the way to go: You'll know that the equipment is in good shape and you can use the gear again and again. However, don't forget the costs and responsibilities of ownership. You have to maintain it, store it, and ship it to your next meeting.

You'll also need a technical crew to set up and run the equipment. Most rental companies resist combining equipment. Don't expect that you'll provide most of the equipment and they'll provide the labor. When rental companies use the client's equipment, they may not want to be held responsible when something does not work.

At Safeco, we buy equipment that is light, small (doesn't cost much to ship), and fairly expensive to rent. Ideally, it's also something that we can use back at the office and that won't be outdated quickly. We typically bring our own laser pointers, dissolves, slide projector lenses, microphones, and lecterns (table top) to our meetings. And although we could justify purchasing slide projectors, stackers, and audio decks, this gear is too heavy and expensive to ship.

Another tactic when purchasing equipment is to split the cost between your department and others at the company that could use the equipment when it's not at a conference. An example of this might be one of the new portable data/video LCD projectors. A good one lists for about $9,000, which is costly. However, if several departments split the bill, then the savings over the rental fee should make the purchase cost-effective.

The decision to rent or to buy audiovisual equipment must be made carefully. There is a different equation for every company, but remember that while purchase price and rental fees are the most glaring costs, there are hidden expenses to consider as well.